A CLOSER LOOK AT THE NRCS HIGH TUNNEL INITIATIVE - Bootstrap Farmer

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE NRCS HIGH TUNNEL INITIATIVE

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A CLOSER LOOK AT THE NRCS HIGH TUNNEL INITIATIVE

Did you know, under certain conditions, your local government will pay for your hoop house?  



FIRST, WHAT EXACTLY IS A HIGH TUNNEL?

High Tunnel Systems are an enclosed plastic or fabric covered structures, used to help control weather related factors such as temperature, sunlight, and wind in addition to aiding in the control of insect pressure; they are an environmentally friendly way to extend the growing season. They are simple hoop style greenhouses often used by beginners and market farmers. The NRCS defines a high tunnel system as,

“An enclosed polyethylene, polycarbonate, plastic, or fabric covered structure that is used to cover and protect crops from sun, wind, excessive rainfall, or cold, to extend the growing season in an environmentally safe manner.”  


There are considerable advantages to using high tunnels, most of them dealing with

controlling something in some way (weather, soil, temperatures, runoff, erosion, etc).

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF HIGH TUNNELS?:

High Tunnels provide numerous advantages including:

  • Allowing for greater control of growing climate and conditions
  • Helping farmers prolong the growing season (season extension)
  • Boosting the quality of the plants and soil
  • Minimizing pesticides and unwanted nutrients
  • Increasing the variety of crops available and overall yields
  • Reducing energy use

In general, whenever you can increase the control over growing conditions, you’re going to be able to maximize your yields. High tunnels are a great way to hit the ground running.

WHAT’S THIS ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT PAYING FOR IT?

There is potentially good news for farms of any size. The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers the High Tunnel System Initiative program under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In this program, financial assistance (subsidies) may be available for your high-tunnel greenhouse. You would be on a contract with the NRCS for a period of time (can range from 4-10 years), abiding by the required growing practices, which they would guide you through. After the time is up, the high tunnel becomes yours solely to do as you please.

This program is open to all farmers in all states, but that doesn’t mean funding is always there. It also doesn't mean that once you apply for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), you are automatically approved. There are certain criteria that one should follow in order to get in this program.

GENERAL (MACRO) CRITERIA FOR THE HIGH TUNNEL

  • Think about what environmental concerns, such as erosion, irrigation, and runoff, your project addresses. Addressing these concerns will become a part of your environmental preservation plan.
  • Produce should be tended on a natural soil profile. Raised beds up to a maximum depth of 12 inches can be placed to develop better soil condition, fertility, and access.

THE SPECIFIC (MICRO) “DO’S AND DON’TS”

The list of all the specifics do’s and don’ts for the high tunnel may seem daunting, but they really aren’t too bad. Below is my attempt at summarizing all the technical jargon:

  • The High Tunnel Initiative is for high tunnels and not types of greenhouses or low tunnels.
  • The high tunnel can not be used as a livestock housing shelter or to store equipment or supplies.  
  • Your high tunnel should be located near a good source for irrigation and avoid a location that may be over buried public utilities.
  • If coming from a manufactured kit, you must plan, design and construct the structure as recommended by the manufacturer.
  • The frame should be at least 6 feet tall at its peak and should be constructed of durable plastic, metal or wood.
  • Your tunnel should be able to allow you to move around supplies and equipment. (You should be able to get in and out and move around efficiently.)
  • If you’re in an area with heavy snow loads, you should have a plan in place to remove or roll up your cover at the end of the growing season. That’s if the manufacturer hasn’t specified it can withstand the load amounts.
  • If you’re in a high wind area, you should look for tunnels manufactured to withstand expected wind loads, or be able to manage the tunnels in a way that minimizes wind damage.
  • You can use shade cloth in place of (or in addition to) plastic covers to reduce sunlight intensity. If you use the shade cloth by itself, you aren’t required to use end walls.
  • Make sure to replant exposed surfaces that were disturbed during the high tunnel construction in accordance to an NRCS code. And, if you can’t replant for some climate-related reason, you can mulch.
  • If you need to make significant modifications to the tunnel, you need to get your ideas approved by the manufacturer in order to make sure warranties aren’t affected.

Additional Tips / Suggestions from NRCS

In choosing a high tunnel greenhouse covering, make sure that the material used is thick enough to withstand all temperature changes in your climate.  NRCS requires that you use a 4 year greenhouse plastic.  For polyethylene covers, use a minimum 6-mil greenhouse grade, UV-resistant material. Having heavy-duty UV-resistant plastic maximizes the lifespan of the plastic, keeping it from breaking down.  Our manufactured 4-yeargreenhouse coverings are specifically suited for NRCS projects.

If you are an organic producer, it's your responsibility to make sure that all allowed activities, design, material used, and material specifications are in line with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program, National Standards on Organic Agricultural Production and Handling.

All construction of high tunnels should be on level grade or the naturally occurring slope if the slope does not exceed five percent. High tunnels shed a lot of water and this can lead to drainage and ponding issues. This can be avoided by having the flow of the direct runoff flow away from the high tunnel system. If your situation requires it, you may need to provide a storage reservoir (detention basin) or some way of keeping the runoff from the tunnel covers from eroding the ground.  Remember though that having a runoff still depends on the law of the state you are in, so it’s always good to check with your local folks first.

You can locate the PDF with the NRCS High Tunnelstandards here.

PREPARATION AND PLANNING YOUR PROJECT

When it comes to planning and preparing your project, you will already be at a point in the process where you are working directly with a local NRCS agent. You’ll be guided through the paperwork, ensuring you adhere to all of the specifics. Check out our introductory blog for direct links to your local agencies.

HOW TO START THE NRCS PROCESS

Good news! You can apply now. The Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS), as well as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) are always accepting applications. They process applications in batches based on number of applicants and pool funding. The best thing you can do to start immediately is to contact your local FSA agent (see link below). Our blog [enter link]  is a also great guide for those wanting understand more about the application process and how to get started.

Find the state by state FSA contact information using this website

Other resources from NRCS

Others NRVS resources from Bootstrap Farmer

BSF NRCS link 1

BSF NRCS link 2

Build Your Own Greenhouse Link


Other NRCS Resources from around the Web






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